TAMPA — The latest version of the “War On I-4″ turned out to be nothing but a thorough USF beatdown on UCF, 75-51, Saturday night.
A most surprising beating at that.
Heading into the rivalry game, USF had not only lost four straight and hadn’t won a game since Dec. 23, but the Bulls often seemed lost to find overall chemistry. Not to mention their struggles with 3-point shooting — 26 percent for the season.
But in front of a raucous crowd that pretty much filled the bottom bowl and reached into the higher levels of the Yuengling Center, the Bulls hit on almost every cylinder.
Playing smoothly with a wide variety of players, USF shot well (8-for-24 on 3-pointers, 33 percent), rebounded fiercely (53-26 advantage) and played suffocating defense throughout.
It was so dominating that USF (6-10, 1-3 AAC) never trailed the entire game. Midway through the first half, the Bulls took a 21-14 lead and didn’t allow the Knights (10-5, 2-3) closer than four points the rest of the way.
The lead was 35-26 at halftime, and with 8:57 remaining it had stretched to 57-37.
USF coach Brian Gregory said the turnaround performance had much to do with getting fired up about the War On I-4.
“There is so much passion on both sides for this game, and I told our guys I want you to show all of that passion,” Gregory said. “I want this game to mean a tad bit more than other games. I told them that when those fans leave this arena, I want them to say, ‘Man, USF spilled it all on the court.’ I’m so proud because our guys went out there and got it done. We just played great.”
Particularly on defense against a strong offensive UCF squad that had not scored less than 60 in any game this season.
The Knights came in shooting 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3-point range. But the Bulls held UCF to 33 percent from the field and 10 percent from 3 (2-for-20).
UCF’s leading scorer, Wharton High alumnus Darin Green (averaging 17 points a game), was held to a season-low three on 1-of-8 shooting.
Green’s biggest nemesis was USF’s Javon Greene, who shadowed him the majority of the night.
“Much respect to (Green) because he is a great player, and it was a big priority to keep him from scoring, and I did my best,” the Bulls’ Greene said. “But it wasn’t just me. It really was an all-around great defensive effort, guys helping each other out. It takes everybody.”
Greene also was stellar on the offensive end, scoring a season-high 19 on 7-of-12 shooting from the field, including 5-of-10 from 3-point range. He also had a season-high nine rebounds.
But like Greene said, it was a total team effort for USF.
There was 6-foot-9 freshman Bayron Matos, who played a season-high 19 minutes and pulled down a season-high nine rebounds. There was guard Caleb Murphy, who finished with 13 points and seven rebounds, and guard Jamir Chaplin with 10 points and eight rebounds.
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“We were coming off a four-game losing streak and we were playing our rival UCF, and we had a lot of fire built up,” Greene said. “We had to win this game. There was so much built up.”
“I feel like this could be a turning point,” Murphy said. “I believe we can play like this every single game.”
USF has won three straight at home over UCF and leads the overall series 25-19.
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